In much of the local scene I’ve met groups who had a shelf life of a couple weeks, a couple months and some maybe pushing half a year. That makes Southern Overdrive unique among their Fort Wayne musical counterparts; the current fivesome has been active together for three years running. If you want to be really impressed, consider that three of the five (Gary Martin of Columbia City, Billy Gillenwater of New Haven, and Brian Michael of Pennville) have been playing together as Southern Thunder for seven years, beginning well before Southern Overdrive became a reality.
The guys of Southern Overdrive don’t mind admitting that their mojo is their music, not any drive for fame and a record deal. Says Martin, “We’re all in our 40s and 50s, and we’ve really gotten most of the wild spunk out. We’re devoted to our music. Years ago we used to play every weekend, but as time [went] by I realized how much I [had] missed with my family and other things. I can count on one hand the number of people from Fort Wayne that have made it big. So we don’t get all excited about a record deal. We’re enjoying our music.”
The three vocalists of the group are Tom Porter of Pierceton (also guitar), Troy Briner of Leesburg (also bass) and Gillenwater. Michaels mans the drums, and Martin contributes the steel guitar and dobro (yes, country fans, these instruments are played in the Fort).
The group as a whole has 150 years of experience under their belts. Martin and Gillenwater started honing their talent while in high school, Briner was playing professionally by 15 and Michaels and Porter started before they were 10 years old. They all share similar musical influences (Merle Haggard, George Strait, Buck Owens, Sammy Hagar, ZZ Top and Alabama) and have a number of country greats in their repertoire, along with some rock and pop hits.
Southern Overdrive’s focus is on “playing songs with ‘a beat,’” says Martin. “It’s that magical feeling that evolves from our excellent percussion and bass section that just makes you want to dance. You just can’t sit still. We not only have two excellent guitar players but the additional country sound of the steel guitar and dobro, which you won’t hear anywhere else in the area from any other bands.”
Martin started out with a “Hawaiian guitar,” moved to a “Spanish guitar” and ended up finding his calling on a steel guitar in the 70s. For the last 40 years Martin has played with country and gospel groups in the tri-state area and in Nashville – these bands have opened for musicians like Loretta Lynn, Kitty Wells, Sonny Wright, Crystal Gayle, Shenandoah, Kentucky Headhunters, Chad Brock, Tommy Cash, Alan Frazzell and Chris Cagle. A fascinating fact about Martin: he has been the steel guitarist in two versions of the theater musical Always, Patsy Cline and performs at the Indiana Steel Guitar Club’s yearly concert. Martin has recorded on well over 1,000 studio tracks in Nashville and Indiana. He also donates some time to record soundtracks for various prison ministries travelling throughout the United States.
Gillenwater’s 30 years in music have taken him across the country, recording in Nashville and locally, and playing with groups that have opened for Troy Shondell, Alan Frazzell, Robin Young, Johnny Rodrigez, Barbara Fairchild, Chris Cagle, Chad Brock, Nat Stuckey and others. Locally, Gillenwater has played with the Paul Schmucker band, River City, Southern Thunder (with Martin) and Nashville Gold (also with Martin).
Porter’s deep baritone voice is a menacing hook for the group’s bait. A songwriter who records music at home, he’s been in several top-notch country and rock bands like Laredo, Savannah and Profile. Porter has opened for national music acts like the Forester Sisters, Alabama, Colin Ray, LeRoy Parnell and Marty Raebon of Shenandoah and has competed in the Country Music Showdown. Porter builds new homes during the day (he owns a construction company) but lives to play music and ride his Harley Davidson motorcycle at night (he claims he could never burn out on Harleys and music).
Michaels has been playing drums since he was “old enough to bang on them.” His reputation among his peers for his timing is impeccable. As the group commented, “he makes even the hardest rolls and licks look easy.” Michaels has played with bands that have opened for stars such as the Kentucky Headhunters, Chad Brock and Chris Cagle, among others. On the side, he’s an excellent sound man and is regularly hired by other artists and bands to mix sound for them.
Briner has played in country, pop, rock and metal groups, travelling from northern Michigan to Alabama. Some of his influences include Braxton, Rufus Meatbone and Harlequin Angel, to name a few. Briner and Porter were musician friends in the past and are now happily reacquainted in Southern Overdrive.
Each one of the members has a special role, all equally important to the group’s success. Martin is a detail man and self-proclaimed computer nerd (he has his own software development company). Gillenwater, their “energetic clown,” has a special gift of relating to the crowd and is a dedicated musician by day as well. Porter has, as the group put it, “the unique ability to deal with nightclub owners,” a trait which cannot be underestimated. Briner leads with his amazing lead vocals, and the claim has been made that he’s been blessed with an exceptional gift of harmony. Michaels, the serious carpenter and jack of all trades, has “the ability to adjust our sound board and make us sound good.”
The guys of Southern Overdrive enjoy a real music crowd – that is, the audience that “has come to see us specifically without other intentions.” Martin explained that the interaction with the crowd is the most rewarding part of his entertaining career. “Some things you can only see from the stage,” he explained. The five can most often be found playing at the Rock-N-Horse, where they revel in the friendly environment. Although their website is currently under construction, check out the guys at www.southernoverdrive.com.